How should we think about Michael Jackson’s music? A new podcast explores his legacyNPR
More than a decade after his death, Michael Jackson continues to inspire new art — from a hit Broadway show to an upcoming biopic — in spite of the decades of controversy that have plagued him.
Sexual abuse accusations, investigations and lawsuits against the “King of Pop” date back decades. They resurfaced prominently in the 2019 HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, in which two men share their stories of allegedly being sexually abused by the singer as children (which his estate denies).
But even though much has already been said about the singer and his complicated legacy, journalist Leon Neyfakh and hip-hop commentator Jay Smooth wanted to take another look.
“If you make an effort to see the story with fresh eyes and talk to people who watched it unfold from up close, but who haven’t necessarily been interviewed a million times, you’re going to end up surfacing so much that’s going to feel new to most of your listeners,” says Neyfakh, who hosts the podcast Fiasco and hosted the first two seasons of Slow Burn, about Watergate and the Clinton impeachment.
“And it might not be like breaking news, but it goes some way towards bringing back to life a story that, in many cases, has sort of calcified or become frozen in amber over time.”
The result is “Think Twice: Michael Jackson,” a 10-part podcast from Audible and Wondery that will be available exclusively on Audible and Amazon Music on Thursday. The name is a lyric from Jackson’s hit song “Billie Jean.”
The series explores Jackson’s staying power despite the disturbing allegations, offering new perspectives on how he was shaped by American culture and vice versa. Listeners will hear from over 100 people who played some part in Jackson’s story, Smooth told Morning Edition: musicians who came up with him in Gary, Ind., and fans who showed up to support him at trial.
It’s not a biography of Jackson, says Neyfakh, “rather a social history about the world he operated in and the people who loved him and the consumers of his art.”
“This is as much a story about us and about how American culture works, how global culture works, and how history and memory work, as much as it is a story about Michael himself,” he adds.
Where to begin?
The series starts in 1993, what the hosts consider the middle of Jackson’s story. He was at the height of his fame — “he was as big as he’d ever been” — when he had the first allegations of child sexual abuse leveled against him.
“In 1993 you see both sides of the Michael story,” Neyfakh says. “The meteoric rise and the incredible cultural status, but then also this tragic and difficult period that followed where, regardless of what you thought about the allegations, you couldn’t really look at him the same way.”
One of the central storylines of that first episode is a short film called “Is This Scary,” which Jackson co-authored with horror writer Stephen King but never released (though parts are still viewable on YouTube).
In the film, Jackson plays a strange man in a haunted house, accused of scaring children from the nearby town with his magic and jokes. A mob of angry parents goes after him with pitchforks.
Neyfakh calls the video a “forgotten artifact” — and says what’s most striking about it is that it was made before anyone had accused Jackson of anything.
“In fact, the accusations happened during the production, which was called off when the first media reports about Jordan Chandler came out,” he added. “And I was just so fascinated that this was the story Michael wanted to tell in a very public form.”
The series also delves into race, unpacking how Jackson thought about his racial identity and what role he played in larger cultural conversations (including his 1994 NAACP Image Awards speech).
Smooth says Jackson had more of an “investment and a connection to his Blackness” than most people assume, while also striving to “be this universal figure for everyone as well.”
“And I think that that tug-of-war over time, along with all the other ways he was trying to navigate being in the brightest spotlight anyone’s ever been in, I think you see that reverberate through his life in so many ways,” he says.
How should we think about Jackson’s music?
The hosts bring different perspectives to the project. Neyfakh didn’t grow up listening to Jackson’s music, but Smooth did — in fact, he says he feels like “I knew him since I was a baby and … since he was a baby.”
Over the years, Smooth says, he came to see Jackson as “this sort of heartbreaking, tragic figure and someone who may well have done awful things to others.” And he’s still not sure what to think now.
“That remains really unsettled for me,” Smooth says. “What to do with all of that, in a way that’s different from a lot of other artists, where I could more easily sort of compartmentalize and either walk away from them or find a way to keep holding on to them.”
And he’s not alone in those feelings. Neyfakh said that, especially in the wake of Leaving Neverland, he didn’t know what to feel when he encountered Jackson’s music.
“People just don’t know what to do with his greatness and his genius, on the one hand, [or] with the profound damage that he’s alleged to have done to the people in his life,” Neyfakh says. “I wanted to give people new ways to process those contradictions by providing all this new raw material, all this firsthand testimony, about how Michael Jackson became Michael Jackson.”
What broader lessons can we learn from Jackson’s story?
The hosts say they’re not trying to persuade anyone to either boycott or support Jackson’s music, just as they’re not aiming to prove or disprove the allegations against him. But they want to explore how individuals — and society as a whole — approach the idea of separating the art from the artist.
Smooth admits that he feels a rush of joy he feels when “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” comes on the radio, evidence of his emotional relationship to Jackson.
“I think it’s important to always question how successfully we can compartmentalize,” Smooth says. “But realistically, that compartmentalization is always going to be a part of our relationship with art.”
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
Elizabeth Eden Harris, known professionally as Cupcakke, is an American rapper from Chicago, Illinois. She is known for her hypersexualised, brazen, and often comical persona
Elizabeth Eden Harris, known professionally as Cupcakke, is an American rapper from Chicago, Illinois. She is known for her hypersexualised, brazen, and often comical persona and music although she has also made songs with themes supporting LGBTQ rights, female empowerment, and autism awareness.
Acclaimed GRAMMY-winning multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello makes her Blue Note Records debut with the June 16 release of The Omnichord Real Book, a visionary
Acclaimed GRAMMY-winning multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello makes her Blue Note Records debut with the June 16 release of The Omnichord Real Book, a visionary and deeply jazz-influenced album that marks the start of a new chapter in her trailblazing career. Following her 2018 covers album Ventriloquism, Meshell returns with an album of new original material that taps into a broad spectrum of her musical roots. The Omnichord Real Book was produced by Josh Johnson and features a wide range of guest artists including Jason Moran, Ambrose Akinmusire, Joel Ross, Jeff Parker, Brandee Younger, Julius Rodriguez, Mark Guiliana, Cory Henry, Joan As Police Woman, Thandiswa, and others.
The Omnichord Real Book is introduced today by the expansive lead single “Virgo,” the mind-altering 8-minute centerpiece of the album which features Meshell on vocals, key bass, and keyboards, Younger on harp, Rodriguez on Farfisa organ, Chris Bruce on guitar, Jebin Bruni on keyboards, drums by Abe Rounds, Deantoni Parks, and Andrya Ambro, and additional vocals by Kenita Miller and Marsha DeBoe. The Omnichord Real Book is available for pre-order now on Blue Note Store exclusive color vinyl, black vinyl, CD, and digital.
“It’s a little bit of all of me, my travels, my life,” says Meshell. “My first record I made at 22, and it’s over 30 years from then, so I have a lot of stored information to share.” Reflecting on the impact that the forced stillness of the pandemic lockdown had on her, she says “I must admit it was a beautiful time for me. I got to really sit and reacquaint myself with music. Music is a gift.”
“This album is about the way we see old things in new ways,” Meshell explains. “Everything moved so quickly when my parents died. Changed my view of everything and myself in the blink of an eye. As I sifted through the remains of their life together, I found my first Real Book, the one my father gave me. I took their records, the ones I grew up hearing, learning, remembering. My mother gifted me with her ache, I carry the melancholy that defined her experience and, in turn, my experience of this thing called life calls me to disappear into my imagination and to hear the music.”
Every Saturday from 10 pm - Midnight CST, In the Mix from Radio Milwaukee provides our listeners with a premier mix show that showcases the many talented DJ's here in the city of Milwaukee. We specialize in Electronic Dance Music spanning several genres; House, Deep, Tech, Drum N Bass, Trap and more
Who we are
HYFIN is a media movement from Radio Milwaukee.
Milwaukee’s only Urban Alternative radio station features the full spectrum of Black music beyond R&B and Hip-Hop plus Milwaukee music. HYFIN connects the culture with the latest Black culture news, podcasts and more. Listen to best hip hop & R&B, dance, Afrobeats and more!
Our radio is always online! Listen now completely free!